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Press Release: Federal Mexican Wolf Recovery Program Still Lagging behind Schedule

WildEarth Guardians Demands Lobo Releases and Increased Protections from Feds, February 3, 2012 (posted 2/12/12)

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Contact: Wendy Keefover (505) 988-9162 x1162

Santa Fe, NM. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its annual census of Mexican gray wolves today, reporting that 58 wolves currently roam the Greater Gila Bioregion in New Mexico and Arizona, an increase of 8 animals from 2010.

“The small population of Mexican wolves on the ground speaks volumes about their resilience in the face of adversity, but their persistence in the wild hangs by a thread,” said Wendy Keefover, Carnivore Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “We quickly need more wolves in the Gila to prevent a genetic bottleneck and grow a healthy population.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service first reintroduced Mexican wolves to the Greater Gila Bioregion in Arizona in 1998 and the original federal recovery plan predicted the area would contain more than 100 wolves by 2006 (the final year of the plan). Trapping, illegal shooting, government removals and local intolerance of wolves have hindered the species recovery for nearly 15 years. Fewer than 60 wolves have been counted annually in the wild since 2006.

“With so few lobos in the wild, we are concerned about their ability to serve their role as ecosystem engineers,” said Keefover. “We say that it’s time to smash open the pens and release dozens of captive wolves into the wild so they can thrive and do their natural, life-generating work.”

WildEarth Guardians advocates three key policy changes to boost population numbers: ban trapping in the Greater Gila; allow for voluntary grazing permit retirement; and release more captive bred wolves into the wild of Arizona and New Mexico. New Mexico allows trapping in wolf range, which is anathema to species conservation and arguably illegal under the Endangered Species Act. Voluntary grazing permit retirement would help reduce livestock grazing on public lands, the primary deterrent to wolf recovery in the Greater Gila. Finally, releasing more captive wolves into the wild would help ensure a genetically healthy, ecologically viable wolf population in the recovery area.

The Mexican gray wolf is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act as an “experimental” population of northern gray wolves, which affords lesser protections than full listing. But the status of Mexican gray wolves is due to change in 2012. The Mexican wolf is one of more than 800 species covered in WildEarth Guardians’ species settlement agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, announced on May 10, 2011, and approved by a federal court on September 9, 2011. In accordance with the agreement, the agency must either propose full listing or determine protection is “not warranted” for Mexican gray wolves as a distinct subspecies of wolves.

Background Information

The Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) is the smallest, rarest, and most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf. Once numbering in the thousands, it roamed across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and the Republic of Mexico. Today, the Mexican wolf or lobo is one of the world’s rarest terrestrial mammals.

Studies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem show that if wolves can function at an ecological level, they create greater biological diversity. They create more species from beetles to birds to grizzly bears. Wolves, considered “coursing carnivores,” chase their prey over long distances. They select for vulnerable animals (aged, sick, injured), which can improve the health of prey populations such as elk. But by preventing elk or other native ungulates from loitering on meadows and fragile stream systems, wolves indirectly benefit a host of species such as beavers, songbirds, and herons that are unable to compete with ungulates for forage. Wolves also regulate the effects of medium-sized carnivores. Wolves even effect soil nutrients. Soil microbes and plant quality increase in the presence of wolves because decomposing carcasses enrich soils.

Rough Road to Recovery

By 1970, human persecution reduced the Mexican wolf population to just a few individuals. Nearly eradicated, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) listed the lobo as endangered on April 28, 1976. It trapped the remaining five live individuals from Mexico and launched an emergency captive breeding program.

In 1982, FWS issued a lobo recovery plan to “conserve and ensure the survival of Canis lupus by maintaining a captive breeding program and re-establishing a viable, self-sustaining population of at least 100 Mexican wolves...within [their] historic range.”

In 1998, the FWS released 11 Mexican wolves onto the 4.4. million-acre Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which is comprised of 95 percent public land and encompasses the entirety of the Gila and Apache National Forests in New Mexico and Arizona. Since 1998, the FWS has released approximately 100 wolves into the wild.

On June 10, 2010, WildEarth Guardians submitted formal petitions to both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and requested an emergency closure on trapping in the range of the Mexican wolf. The petitions were denied and ignored, respectively.

On July 28, 2010, Governor Bill Richardson issued an Executive Order that prohibited leghold and body-crushing traps within the Mexican wolf recovery area in New Mexico to protect wolves. The order banned commercial and recreational trapping in the area for a six-month period beginning on November 1, 2010; required the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to research whether traps harm wolves; and directed the Department of Tourism to study the potential economic benefits of lobo-related ecotourism.

On October 28, 2010, the New Mexico Game Commission unanimously adopted the Governor’s Executive Order as part of the state’s wildlife regulations. But at that hearing, Jim Lane, then Chief of the Wildlife Management Division for the Department of Game and Fish, declared that coyote trapping was still legal because his agency had “no authority” to regulate coyotes.

On May 17, 2011, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, and Animal Protection of New Mexico requested that the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the Game Commission ban traps on all public lands in New Mexico.

In 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report, “Evaluating Trapping Techniques to Reduce Potential for Injury to Mexican Wolves.” It recounts a struggling recovery program:

  • 37 wolves were illegally shot;
  • 23 were removed from the wild by FWS;
  • 15 were caught in traps (2 died, 7 sustained injuries, of which 3 had amputation surgeries);
  • 12 were hit by vehicles;
  • 11 were lethally controlled by Fish and Wildlife Service;
  • 1 was legally shot by the public; and
  • 1 died from a USFWS trap.

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Click here for a quick, easy action to help persuade the Secretary of the Interior to release more Mexican gray wolves into the wild!

Photo courtesy of Jean Ossorio